Friday 19 August 2016

Mega Drive Review - James Pond Underwater Agent (Game 113)

In the days of one man game development, Chris Sorrel created 'James Pond : Underwater Agent'. A platform game where you don't stand on platforms, how would this Amiga game fare on the Mega Drive ?

Developed by Vectordean
Published by Millennium interactive / EA 
Released in 1990

Water and video games do not mix. This is why the manual included with every console you've ever bought will remind you not to submerge your new machine. But, even if you somehow resist the urge to drop your latest gaming equipment into a bath, digital water (within the video games you play on it) can still ruin your experience. The water temple in 'The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time' is often people's go to example when it comes to good games being ruined by bad water. In this game, to give the illusion of being submerged, your playable character's every action is slowed to a crawl. Navigation around the level is hampered by ill-conceived controls and even with the N64's controller's plethora of buttons You can't swim up or down. Instead equipping special boots allows you to sink and trudge along the bottom of the temple and taking them off is the only way to get back to the surface. Should you get even one switch wrong water currents can carry you all the way back to the start, meaning anyone attempting this temple without following a step-by-step guide should be congratulated. It's a terrible part of an otherwise near perfect game, but it's not the only time when a water stage has ruined a game. 

As a child I hated the water maze stage of 'Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles ' on the NES. For animals that should have natural swimming abilities, Leonardo and his brothers sure swim slowly. This isn't particularly helpful when you're trying to diffuse submerged bombs within a tight time limit. It also seemed strange that these reptiles are so easily damaged by the stinging algae that line every possible route through the aquatic labyrinth. 

Water also brings super fast Sonic to a screeching halt, which is rather devastating when his entire franchise is built around speed. Someone at Sonic Team was really having a bad day when they thought plunging the hedgehog into dreary water filled levels devoid of any sense of acceleration would make for a fun experience. To make matters worse, the air bubbles that Sonic must find to avoid drowning are sparsely distributed. Often you'll die simply because you weren't given enough time to learn a level layout. 

Clearly to keep a game's standards up its best to stick to dry land, so why did I have such a fondness for 'James Pond: Underwater Agent' as a child ?

Harking back to the days when a game could be created by one man in his bedroom, 'James Pond' was the brain child of Chris Sorrel. “I was a computer game obsessed Eighties kid whose passion for playing games quickly turned into a desire to create them,” he once told Retro Gamer. “I taught myself to program in assembly language and spent many late nights developing demos and games." Sorrel didn't just code 'James Pond' though, despite being just 18 at the time he was confident enough to get involved in all aspect of the game's creation. “I was proud to have brought the whole thing together, especially to have worked on code, graphics and design" he once said. "The crazy thing about those days was how short the development span was; in just seven months, assisted by Steve Bak and an old school-friend, we built the entire game.” 

Programming and graphic design sound like unlikely bedfellows, but Sorrel actually was first employed as an artist; "creating the bitmap artwork for a game based on the TV show 'Spitting Image'". Driven by this games success, the development team wanted to continue working together and "Vectordean" was born. It was the perfect creative environment for Sorrell. "As the only artist I was initially focused on creating the artwork for our titles [but studio manger] Steve [Bak] allowed me to indulge my primary passion, which was, of course, programming." 

At the time Vectordean games were distributed by Millennium Interactive, who was keen to publish new game ideas that (if successful) could be spun out into franchises. Keen to please, Sorrel quickly went to work developing new IP. “To impress Millennium I began on the concept that would soon become 'James Pond: Underwater Agent'” he told Retro Gamer. Sorrel wanted his new title to star an animal as “cutesy animals were so often the stars of early-Nineties games." However, It was already a crowded market so the eager teenager was left “wracking [his] brains trying to think of an animal that hadn’t been seen before, and whose physical traits and natural environment might offer up something new in the way of mechanics and visuals." In his search for inspiration Sorrell turned his mind back to games he liked in his youth. Two games were influential; 'Gribbly’s Day Out' on the C64 and Bullfrog’s 'Flood'. "My goal was to try and transplant some the flying mechanics from 'Gribbly’s' into an underwater world" he admitted. "I ended up developing some rough prototypes of a googly eyed goldfish [and] brainstormed some underwater mechanics and level ideas".

While it may look like a platform game, 'James Pond' actually plays more like a top down maze game, with controls akin to 'Zelda'. Our hero can freely move in eight directions, so an up input makes James swim up the screen rather than jumping. As a fish, he is comfortable underwater and actually rather responsive. The on screen platforms are not ledges to stand on; they are obstructions to navigate around. In fact the only time James behaves like the protagonist of a typical platform game is when he is out of water. Here he must leap between ledges, but in a true inversion of water-in-game expectations you'll actually want to be submerged. In fact, behaving like a fish out of water James Pond is hard to control and unpredictable on dry land. 

The objective of each stage differs, although they all revolve around finding something and making sure it gets to a different place. On one stage you'll be tasked with taking gold bars to an awaiting ship. Another sees you freeing caged lobsters by carrying keys to them. As you play on you'll be collecting explosives to blow up an oil platform and even more obscure is the stage where you must plant orchids by trees to stop logging firms. To make a change from the fetch quests, there are escort missions. One sees you seeking out and safely guiding friendly fish to a safe zone, another demands you venture on to dry land and rescue seals. It's variety, but essential you'll still be finding something in the stage and moving it to somewhere else, only this time it'll follow you to save you having to carry it.
One stage actually challenges you to fetch a comb before escorting a mermaid to safety. It's a fusion of both the level styles that really only highlights just how similar they are. Most levels consist of several areas, linked by large holes and when looked at as a whole the environments are actually quite large. However, annoying James can only carry one item at a time, meaning that while you may see two desired items together; getting both will require two trips. Thankfully, to minimise tiresome backtracking, warps litter the levels, which can even be used even if you are carrying something. 

Success depends on you memorising direct routes through the stages, as enemies will kill James if he touches them. Thankfully he can defend himself using a method very familiar to anyone that has played 'Bubble Bobble'. When underwater, the aquatic secret agent can blow bubbles which trap enemies. Hitting them when in this bubble will kill them leaving a bonus pickup in its place. Collecting these restores James' energy. The range of collectables are as varied as they are random, from Rubics Cubes to umbrellas, apples and cream cakes to false teeth. There was no logic to it, but that didn't matter it all became part of the "charming British humor". "The whole thing was fun - that was one of the great things about development back then: you had an idea, you tried it out, you expanded it. Very few team inter-dependencies, no studio bureaucracy, and for 'James Pond: Underwater Agent' at least, no pressure or expectations. The game was whatever we wanted it to be" Sorrrel remembers fondly. "I always liked the attention to detail stuff like changing Pond's expression according to his number of lives, or letting him pick up and wear silly items like the helmet or shades. I sure loved any opportunity to be silly. "

However while abstract ideas are certainly amusing, the James pond series is best known for its fish puns. The game was originally known as 'Guppy' but Millennium's managing director Michael Hayward suggested a rather dramatic change. "he had the 'so bad it's good' idea to re-name the fishy star of my in-progress game as 'James Pond'" Sorrel once admitted to Eurogamer. "I wasn't sure initially but I quickly realised how much pun potential there was beyond that simple name" he explained to Edge magazine. "The rest as they say is fish-tory. Sorry." most levels mimicking a James Bond titles with "License to Bubble" (after Licence to Kill), "A View to a Spill" (A View to a Kill) and "Leak and Let Die" (Live and Let Die). A young Sorrell didn't see the problem with parody at the time; it was all done with humour in mind. "Obviously we were all pretty naive about copyright issues back then, so spoofing the MGM lion-roar intro was done without a second thought for how it might be infringing anyone's copyright! As I understand it, a little while after the game launched, Millennium were contacted by MGM lawyers. [...] I'm sure the fact I directly sampled their intro can't have helped."

The game went down well on the 16-bit home computers. "From the super-cute sprites through to the brilliant scenery everything is a graphical feast to behold [...] a brilliant arcade adventure" noted CVG magazine reviewing the Amiga release. Amiga Format was equally enamoured. "'James Pond' looks good, plays well and sounds spiffing too" they wrote in 1990. 

With such glowing praise 'James Pond' caught the attention of EA, who presented Vectordean and Millennium a chance they never could have anticipated. "EA gave us the opportunity to convert 'Underwater Agent' to the new Sega Mega Drive console, or ‘Genesis’ as it was known in the US,” Sorrel explains. It was a dream come true for the young developer, who was still playing games at his parent’s house after work. In fact he had a taste for Sega machines in particular. "Around the time I was working on the original 'James Pond' I bought an import Mega Drive and fell in love". However Sorrel himself wasn't able to complete the conversion to the Sega console which was instead done by his boss, Steve Bak.
Using the Amiga version as a base Bak was under time pressure, as EA wanted the game available as close to the console's European launch as possible. "Our relationship with EA was certainly a little strange," Sorrell once said to Eurogamer. "'James Pond' was the first Mega Drive game to be developed in Europe and was produced in a crazy rush on a one-of-a-kind Mac-based dev-kit that Steve had to personally fly back with from San Francisco."

Bak's conversion is faithful to the Amiga version, reusing Sorrels art and gameplay mechanics. Apart from some minor changes to the backgrounds the two are indistinguishable, with levels identical and the same sprites used in both games. The parody and British humour remains with one exception; the stage named after 'From Russia with Love'. On the Amiga this stage is known as 'From Sellafield with Love', but on the Mega Drive it's 'From Three Mile Island with Love'. 

Thankfully the Mega Drive can faithfully replicate the jaunty Amiga music. Richard Joseph's melodies thoroughly suit the silliness of the game and add greatly to the atmosphere. "Richard did an amazing job!" recalls Sorrel. "He immediately latched onto the Bond spoof principle and delivered an excellent pastiche of the Bond theme. For in-game he carried across a lot of the same instrumentation adding in the kind of upbeat bounce that perfectly complimented the game's cutesy vibe."

However, as is so often the case, this cutesy game is a lot harder than many would think. Enemies can kill you in seconds, environments can kill you in seconds and even being out of the water can kill you in seconds. 'James Pond' is a game of limited lives and continues and with no way to save your game, so conserving your health is essential. To this end its worth deciding how long you want to spend on each mission, as you don't need to fully complete an objective to be able to progress. However the more of a given task you do, the more exits will be open allowing you to skip some harder levels if you desire. However, frustratingly some exits will also send you to the level before your current one, so progression through the game is far from linear. The World record speed run for the game is actually only twelve minutes so the perfect play through really isn't very long at all. Most though will never have the intimate knowledge required for such pace. I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of players get frustrated by being punished for a single careless mistake. They'll never know that all the effort is only rewarded by a single screen of text once you complete the game. 

'James pond underwater agent' is best enjoyed nostalgically. It's a snapshot of a time when an 18 year old could make a game worthy of release on a major games console. It's flawed, it's frustrating, it's fishy but it's also fun. It shows how far creativity can take a developer if they're not hampered by a publisher or the weight of expectations. 'James Pond' returned in the far superior 'RoboCod' sequel; a game featuring a fish that's largely devoid of water. Ultimately this means if you're looking for a game that shows that water can greatly improve a game you should forgo 'James Pond' and play 'Bio Shock' instead. You probably won't miss the fish puns.

Where did I get this game from?
I used to play many an Amiga game when I was younger, so 'James Pond' is a character I know well. In fact I liked him so much that I vaguely remember asking my Dad to carve a wooden statue of the "Underwater Agent" for some reason. I was very pleased when my brother got the Mega Drive version for my birthday. I wager I enjoy it more because the music alone brings back so many happy memories. 

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